Increase Your Focus By Realizing "What's Important Now"
STUCK IN A RUT
Several years ago I worked with a tennis player, Jenna, who was having some issues with her performance in matches. She was frustrated because even if she did well during practice, she couldn’t replicate the same level of skill during games. The only solution she knew was to keep pushing herself harder and harder in practice, consequently stressing herself out even more when her competition performance still lagged behind.
Getting stuck in a rut like Jenna’s, when more than one skill is lacking, is often the result of your mentality rather than a purely physical issue. For Jenna, her problems presented only in matches, so instead of starting off by telling her to practice more, I talked her through her own thoughts about performing. We quickly discovered that she was having difficulty focusing during matches.
FOCUS ON WHAT YOU CAN CONTROL
Before a game, almost all of Jenna’s mental energy was directed away from herself and towards her opponent. Instead of thinking about how she might perform her best, she was obsessing over her opponent:
“Oh no, I’m playing Emma next week. She always attacks my weak backhand.”
Jenna also would put immense pressure on herself to compensate for her weaknesses, but not in a positive way.
“I can’t mess up my second serve this time. Just don’t mess up, don’t mess up.”
All of this combined to a pre-game mentality that summed up to:
“Oh, I already know this is going to be too hard for me.”
No matter what sport you play, your physical performance will be affected by your mental focus. It’s the same thing as when you hit a ball or drive a car: it’s going to go where you look. If your attention is on your opponent before a match, all of your mental energy will go to them, causing a subsequent drop in your physical playing ability.
Once I asked Jenna to repeat her thoughts out loud, it was obvious that her misplaced focus was distracting her; but in the anxiety-ridden muddle of a pre-game thinking, it’s easy to miss obviously negative thoughts like hers. She was letting those thoughts walk over her like it was normal. That’s why becoming consistently aware of your thoughts is a critical first step. Before you can change how you think, you need to acknowledge where your mental focus is.
WHAT IS THE WIN METHOD?
That’s why I created a guide to your thought process. I call it the WIN Method, or, What’s Important Now?
I want that question to be a basis for analyzing your thoughts. Distraction is caused and remedied by what you think and how you think, as Jenna showed us; so the WIN Method can also be seen as a guide to focusing. It will help you acknowledge your thoughts and redirect them in the most beneficial way.
So, what is important now? These five questions serve as a good guide. Ask yourself:
Focused on what I can control?
Staying in the present?
Telling myself what I want to do?
Focusing on my strengths?
Asking better questions?
Only if you pay attention to your thoughts can you manage them. Remember how silly Jenna’s worries seemed when they were written down? The same effect occurs when you isolate a bothersome thought and take a good look at it. Use the WIN Method to question those thoughts; instead of letting bad thinking habits take over, you can direct your thoughts in a positive way. Your skill and performance will follow.
KEEP TRACK OF YOUR THOUGHTS
I helped Jenna notice the thoughts that were causing her to lose focus before a competition. Now she needed to change how she thought about things that worried her. Let’s look at her first thought about Emma: “She always attacks my weak backhand.” Jenna was using this thought to build up Emma as an impossible-to-beat opponent. If Jenna questions that thought, she realizes that Emma doesn’t “always” attack her backhand. Emma surely has her own skill weakness that Jenna can exploit. And even if Jenna is self-conscious about her backhand, Emma doesn’t actually make it worse. Let’s help Jenna redirect her thought and make it productive: “what can I do to improve my backhand?”
Jenna’s coach advised her to take her racket back earlier to get a stronger backhand. That is good advice-- unlike whatever Emma’s doing, Jenna’s backhand itself is “important now” during the game. Now, during practice, whenever she catches herself thinking about Emma, she redirects her attention to what she can control, her swing; and during games she will have this habit to rely on.
To perform her best for her second serve, which she also had built up as impossible, Jenna redirected her thoughts in a similar way. Instead of telling herself what she didn’t want to do- “don’t miss this one”- she needed to focus on what she wanted to do each time she hit the ball. By giving herself brief, specific instructions to correct her serve, like “reach up and follow through,” she could actually improve her serve, instead of just shaming herself for having trouble with it.
Thoughts like Jenna’s create a kind of amorphous pressure. It’s like a cloud hanging over you all the time-- there’s no specific, concrete advice on improving yourself, just the frantic thought that you’re bad and you’ve got to fix it. After you start recognizing these thoughts with The WIN Method, you can prevent that pressure effect by tracking your thoughts. After all, the way you think is just like any other skill: you’ve got to practice, track your performance, and form good habits.
HOW TO USE A WIN CHECKLIST
Jenna used a WIN checklist to keep a physical record of her thoughts. She picked three WIN skills that needed improvement and added dates for practices and competitions so she could rate each skill at the end of the play. She reviewed her checklist before each practice and competition, so it acted as a reminder to redirect her attention when she got distracted. Afterwards she reviewed her performance on each skill, rating from 1= “this skill needs a lot of work”, to 5= “I’ve got it.”
|What's Important now?||7/26||7/29||7/30||8/1|
|1. Stay in the present||2||1||3||3|
|2. Attend to what I can control||3||2||3||4|
|3. Tell myself exactly what I want to do||1||2||5||5|
This keeps Jenna honest and working hard, but being able to chart her improvements has also been a boost to her confidence.
Many of us have some ineffective thinking habits. The key is to become more aware of your thinking so you can create thoughts that are more effective. That’s what makes The WIN Method so essential: it teaches you how to focus and manage your thoughts under pressure.
Everyone’s put under some kind of pressure every day, whether you’re a student who needs to keep her grades up, an employee who needs to impress his boss, or a mother balancing her own needs with that of the household’s. Not every day is going to be the next big game-- but treating individual moments like that can hugely help your focus and stress management. And when it is a big game, your mind will be developed just like your backhand: practiced, positive, and focused on improvement.